Those who dismiss the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy as exploitative, derivative flotsam speak to the reason why the in-the-works American remake of Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is doomed for disappointment.
Yes, Larsson was a fan of English and American crime fiction, but the true driving influence behind his novels was an indigenous commentary on Swedish society, something bound to get lost in translation on its way to Hollywood.
Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the goth-inspired, postmodern Pippi Longstocking at the heart of Larsson's series, is a flashpoint for the anxiety generated by northern Europe's archaic ideological past and its techno-capitalist future. She embodies the inconsistent regard for women in contemporary Sweden, a country that ranks high in the number of women holding public office, graduating from college and comprising the workforce. Yet violence and rape are so pervasive there that Amnesty International issued a report on the subject last year.
Lisbeth opens the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, in exile at her Caribbean hideaway, flush with millions of dollars she fleeced from disgraced industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström's offshore bank account at the conclusion of Dragon Tattoo. Still, she longs for Stockholm and her precious few friends, including Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson), her former guardian, and Miriam (Yasmine Garbi), her erstwhile lover.
Unfortunately, no sooner does Lisbeth step foot back in Sweden than she finds herself framed for the gangland slaying of reporter Dag Svensson and his girlfriend, Mia, along with the execution-style murder of Nils Bjurman, Lisbeth's probationary guardian, who stills bears the scarlet lettering she carved into his abdomen after he brutally raped her in Dragon Tattoo.
Dag was completing an exposé on prostitution and human trafficking for Millennium magazine, home to middle-aged investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the other half of Larsson's protagonist duo. With the manhunt for Lisbeth in full swing, Blomkvist begins a parallel search for the real killers that will eventually cross a boxing trainer, a notorious Russian gangster and his robotic henchman.
Some lingering questions from the first film are answered in the sequel, such as the reason Lisbeth's mother resides in an assisted living facility. Indeed, The Girl Who Played With Fire requires a working knowledge of the events in Dragon Tattoo to follow the plot and appreciate its nuances. Yet that respect for the audience's intelligence is one of the high points of this film and its forebear.
Take the affair between Blomkvist and his editor, Erika Berger (Lena Endre). No blathering about how it will impact the workplace (or Erika's marriage); no fretting about how Blomkvist hasn't gotten over his sexual relationship with Lisbeth. There's just a scene of Blomkvist and Erika waking up in bed together. The script leaves it to the viewer to fill in the narrative blanks.
Director Daniel Alfredson produces a streamlined, but no less visually stimulating effort. Working from Larsson's source, writer Jonas Frykberg litters the screenplay with genre homages (e.g., before her death, Mia was penning a thesis on Russian gangs titled "From Russia With Love," and the villainous goon tracking Lisbeth is a hulking, blond baddie impervious to pain, à la the SPECTRE assassin Robert Shaw plays in the James Bond classic).
Lisbeth is afforded plenty of opportunities to roam the countryside asphyxiating information out of perverts and Tasering male attackers in the nuts, although not to the prurient depths of Dragon Tattoo. But the series' forte remains Rapace's and Nyqvist's performances and the believable affinity they build between Lisbeth and Blomkvist, an unusual kinship in that it evolves from sexual partners to sidekicks. The two share only a few minutes of screen time in The Girl Who Played With Fire; most of their interaction takes place via surveillance video and instant messaging, itself a commentary on relationships in our digital age. The way their symbiotic devotion remains intact, and even matures, from afar actually strengthens their emotional bond.
Plotwise, The Girl Who Played With Fire is little more than a high-gloss, sometimes tawdry potboiler. It is the packaging, acting and symbolism that transform this popular page-turner into a stout serial.
Correction (Aug.9, 2010): The last name of the character played by Michael Nyqvist was misspelled.